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As seen in the Transitions Abroad Webzine June 2008 Issue
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Culinary Travel
Drinking Beer in Scotland

Travel to Drink Beer in Europe

There’s More to European Beer than Just Germany

Author enjoying a Pilsner Urquell in Praha, Czech Republic.

Can’t make it to Munich? No worries: there is much more to European beer than Oktoberfest and lederhosen. As an avid beer drinker hailing from the micro-brew-rich Pacific Northwest, I’ve tasted many foamy pints. Although I wouldn’t call myself a sommelier de bière just yet, I can definitely recommend some of the best beers Europe has to offer outside of Deutschland.

Beer in Belgium

Although it is world renowned for its beer and chocolate, Belgium lives up to its gourmet reputation. In Belgium it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the wide selection, with more than 120 local breweries producing more than 350 beers, but it’s also easy to get good advice from the local behind the bar.

You can head over to the medieval city of Bruges—a UNESCO world heritage site—to sample Belgian beer in a fairy-tale setting. Go first to the famous t’Brugs Beertje pub (Kemelstraat 5) to sample one of their 300 bottled delights. Tell Daisy, the proprietor, or one of her staff the flavors you prefer, and they are able to match your taste to a Belgian gem.

I recommend the St. Bernardus Prior 8 for a full flavored ruby colored beer and the St. Bernardus Abt 12 (10.5% alcohol!) for a top of the line brew. But beware! A Belgian man sitting next to me recommended ordering only one of the high-alcohol “12” beers per night or you may find yourself “dancing on the table.”

Head next to Bierbrasserie Cambrinus (Philipstockstraat 19) where a wood-bound, color-coded menu helps explain each beer by its flavor, coloring, alcohol content, and ingredients. Try the Watou Wit, a wheat beer with hints of orange and coriander, followed by a Kwak, ale served in a puzzling and entertaining piece of glassware. As you have now sampled four or five Belgian beers, you have probably noticed that each bottle comes with its own specific glass made especially that beer. Although it might seem like a bit of beer snobbery, the brewers designate a specific glass to help bring out the flavor of their brew.

For dessert, order the super sweet and fruity Lindeman’s Framboos (raspberry) or Lindeman’s Peche (peach), spontaneously fermented beers called lambic, that remind you what would happen if beer, champagne, and fruit somehow fathered a love child.

Stagger home and have a rest. The next morning, stop by the world renowned beer shop De Bier Tempel (Philipstockstraat 7) to purchase bottles and coordinating stemware for take away.

Finally, it’s time for a side trip into the Flemish countryside to one of Belgium’s Trappist breweries. Only seven Trappist breweries exist in the world—six in Belgium, one in the Netherlands. Trappist breweries are breweries licensed as “Trappist” and brewed by monks in a monastery—yes, that’s right, holy men making the holy drink.

A short drive from Bruges takes you to the Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren, where you can sample what some consider the “holy grail” of beer in the monastery café. In fact, RateBeer.com listed the Westvleteren Abt 12 as the best beer in the world! But the brew can only be purchased in take-away quantity by using the beer phone reservation system. That’s right: this beer is so rare that purchase is limited to one order per month because the brewers “would like to reach as many customers as possible.”

An array of beers and labels in Bruges, Belgium

Beer in the Czech Republic

Like Brugge, Prague is a city that is worth a visit regardless if you are a beer, wine, or water traveler. Most pubs in Prague are affiliated with one beer or another. For instance, if you go to a pub with a Pilser Urquell sign in the window, then it’s likely the only beer sold inside. So it takes a little bar hopping to ensure you try all of the Prague heavyweights: Pilsner Urquell, Budvar, and Gambrinus. Try them all. All are light, clear lagers with a smooth taste, served in nice heavy mugs for around $2. Some pubs offer a dark version of their on tap favorite, so make sure you sample that, too.

Once you’ve tried all of the big-time brews Prague has to offer, its time to try a microbrew. Stop first in the center of the old town at U Medvídků where a great Budvar bar has a little more up its sleeve. In addition to the Budvar, try the Old Gott, a 5.2% pivo with a more full-bodied flavor than the Budvar. If you really want a kick, ask for the Double Beer Primator 24°a 10% alcohol, super strong dark beer in a traditional bottle.

After you’ve filled your belly, it is time for a hike across town. Walk across the Charles Bridge from the Old Town, filling up your digital camera with spires, statues, and castle shots, and keep heading uphill on Uvoz to the Strahov Monastery and Library. Across the courtyard from the Strahov Library is Klasterni Pivovar Brewery (Strahovske Nadvori 301).

The Klasterni Pivovar Brewery “reopened” in 2000 after a 93-year hiatus. I’m not sure if it is still affiliated with the monastery next door; regardless the location and beer is fantastic. When you first step inside, it looks to be the typical Budvar bar, but the brewery also handcrafts the St. Norbert collection—an amber and a dark, as well as a special beer to compliment each Czech season. I visited in early spring and was very pleasantly surprised with the St. Norbert Weizen, a spicy, citrusy wheat beer that was a welcome respite from all of the lager.

Beautiful gothic Prague in the springtime.

Beer in Ireland

Ok, so it is now clear that I have a little favoritism toward the Belgians and their liquid heaven, but we can’t overlook Ireland and its famous black gold—Guinness. Does a Guinness taste different in Ireland? Well, unfortunately, I forgot to put a non-Irish Guinness in my suitcase so I could subject my husband to a blind taste test in a Dublin pub. But I can guarantee one thing—Guinness is everywhere.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Guinness is fantastic. I love the way a good Irish bartender can make a little shamrock in the head after the two-stage pour goes just perfectly. I love the way it settles, swirls, and feels as it goes down. I even loved the Disney-esque Guinness Storehouse experience in St. James Gate. But, after a few days in Dublin, I needed something a little less…well…less “Guinness.”

Thank St. Patrick for The Porterhouse (16-18 Parliament Street, Temple Bar, Dublin). The Porterhouse is a Irish-owned microbrewery where all the brews are handcrafted with the utmost attention to detail: using locally grown Irish malts, selecting the finest hops, and hand crafting each beer. They serve three stouts, three ales, three lagers, and a seasonal beer that tastes like chocolate. Beer and chocolate combined into one drink? The taste rivals Belgium for a little pint of heaven.

Hop into The Porterhouse early to get a good seat at the bar downstairs so you don’t ever have to wait in line to try your next brew. Try first the Plain Porter and a chill goes down your spine as you realize that this perfect stout may give Guinness itself a run for its money. Next, try the Brainblasta, a copper-colored ale and the strongest beer on tap at 7% alcohol. Its motto: “Use it, don’t abuse it.” There are still seven more to try. Don’t fret. The Porterhouse is open late, so sample them all!

Visiting the home of Guinness at the St. James Gate Brewery, Dublin.

Beer in England

No European beer tour would be complete without a bit on England and its pubs and ales. Unlike the previously mentioned countries, England still prides itself on serving cask-conditioned ale— that is ale brewed using traditional ingredients (water, hops, malted barley, and yeast) but left to mature in the cask.

Almost all beer is pasteurized to kill the yeast and put in an airtight container, and then pressurized to keep it from spoiling. In England, real ale isn’t pasteurized or pressurized. The yeast is still living inside the beer, giving it a limited shelf life, but a guarantee of freshness. For detailed information on the process visit the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) website at www.camra.org.uk.

Even the major players in the brewing business in England serve cask conditioned ales—hop into your local pub and watch as the pub master literally “pulls” the pint from the cask. The head on English ale is much less pronounced and the beer seems more “flat” than that of the Czech lagers and Guinness that we’ve already sampled precisely because the bubbles are byproducts of the natural yeast fermentation still going on in the beer, and not produced by pressurization or carbonation.

Stop into any real pub in England and ask for a cask ale. If they don’t have one, they aren’t a real pub. On trips to London, I prefer the Fuller’s London Pride, an award-winning British bitter that is found throughout the city. In England, many small town pubs are owned or rented from a brewery by a family who works and lives on site. Many are also affiliated with a larger brewery: You’ll see a Fuller’s sign outside a pub serving Fuller’s ales. But keep on the lookout for a pub with “Free House” somewhere on the sign. These pubs are not affiliated and may sell a wider variety of ales and other beers.

My heart lies in Suffolk, home of the Greene King Brewery, an establishment that claims that “no other UK brewer is as committed to cask ale” as they are. The Greene King Abbot Ale is a beautiful red amber color with toasted malt and a lightly fruity flavor. Another favorite is the Greene King IPA—an amber ale that is much less hoppy than many other local ales. Greene King pubs are concentrated in East Anglia, but can be found in London, Cambridge, and elsewhere throughout England.

England is also peppered with microbreweries. My local favorite is Old Cannon Brewery (86 Cannon Street, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk). They put out the Gunner’s Daughter and Blonde Bombshell—strong and flavorful English ales in a great pub setting that also serves locally sourced traditional pub grub.

And for the road tripper, England is also peppered with beer festivals! Visit the CAMRA website for an extensive listing of events where you can spend your afternoon or evening sampling locally brewed beer by the pint or the half. Small villages to large cities celebrate their English Ales at beer fests throughout the year and are an excellent way to travel the countryside sampling a variety of good brews with hundreds of your new British mates where the admission fees go to a local charity.

Cheers!

For More Information

Belgium

t’Brugs Beertje pub: www.brugsbeertje.be
Bierbrasserie Cambrinus: www.cambrinus.eu
St. Bernardus Brewery: www.sintbernardus.be
Lindeman’s Brewery: www.lindemans.be
Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren: www.sintsixtus.be/eng/home.htm

Ireland

Guinness Brewery: www.guinness.com
The Porterhouse: www.porterhousebrewco.com

Prague

U Medvídků: www.umedvidku.cz
Klasterni Pivovar Brewery: www.klasterni-pivovar.cz/en/

England

Greene King Brewery: www.greeneking.co.uk
Old Cannon Brewery: www.oldcannonbrewery.co.uk
Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA): www.camra.org.uk

Beer Expert Sites

RateBeer: www.ratebeer.com
Beer Advocate: beeradvocate.com